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Customer and employee engagement has been termed a Brave New World by many. Brands have moved on from a customer service team that dealt largely with post-purchase enquiries or complaints to customers that want to build a relationship with their favourite car manufacturer or retailer.

Likewise, with so much communication now being transparent on blogs or social networks, the employees handling the customer relationship are now in the spotlight. These are no longer the scripted drones of the contact centres that stand-up comics write routines about.

How can companies handle this enormous change in the way they need to communicate with their customers – and employees?

First, by realising that everyone has changed the way that we communicate. It’s not just the customer service function at major brands. We all tweet politicians today, use Tinder to find a potential new partner, and text friends all over the world for free on WhatsApp. Communication itself has changed and this has also affected how we get in touch with brands. Think about the last time you used your smartphone as a phone for an easy to visualise example.

With this in mind, here are my top five guidelines for executives thinking about how their brand engages with customers today:

1. The customer leads and you follow; this means that you can’t answer tweets with a message saying ‘please call our help desk between 9am to 5pm’ – you just answer the problem in the channel the customer is using. And every channel needs to be mobile-friendly; this is not an optional extra when most people now access the Internet through phones or tablets far more than they do sitting at a desk with a PC.
2. Realise the value of your data; you know so much about what your customers are buying, what they like, when they like to buy, what channels they use to communicate… do something with this. Turn big data into valuable information because if you can start using analytics to predict customer behaviour then it will delight customers and will look positive on your revenue numbers. Even launching a proactive support strategy is a good start – help out those people who are searching for information and might leave your site if they can’t find it.
3. Omnichannel support is essential; I hate calling a brand, handing over all my details then getting transferred to another department and having to hand over all the same data. Why torture the customer when you have the information already? But accept that customers are not just on the phone today, most are familiar with at least six communication channels… you need to ensure that emails, tweets, chats, Facebook comments, Tripadvisor reviews can be collated so you know all about the customer you are engaging with.
4. Loyalty is about the relationship; sure if you can combine a payment system with a points programme – like Starbucks – then points can still work for loyalty, but most of those programmes are dead. What you need now is to figure out how to build a genuine ongoing relationship that makes customers want to engage with and buy from you. Why do people get Nike and Harley Davidson tattoos? That’s where you need to be aiming.
5. Customer service is not a McJob; finally, a mention for the agents on the frontline because your brand is defined by these people today. Forget the millions spent on advertising, marketing, competitions, and PR. If your customer service sucks then customers will be sharing those interactions all over their social networks – that’s what will define how people see your brand, not an ad featuring George Clooney. Take hiring seriously and get people who really want to engage with customers, to help people every day. Get people who want to move into other areas of the business. Your agents can have a real career with you, not just flexible temp job in the call centre. Your sales, marketing, PR, and advertising teams should jump at the opportunity to hire people who already work for the company and know the clients inside out. Look after these guys and your customers will notice.

The exact statistics vary, depending on the report you read, but approximately two-thirds to three-quarters of customers now say that they are prepared to boycott a brand that gives them a bad experience as a customer. It is no surprise that the customer experience is now the #1 priority for most C-level executives.

Technology and communications are changing fast. Soon we will have virtual reality and wearable devices to deal with, but in the immediate future addressing these five suggested areas will give a great advantage.

What do you think about the immediate future for the customer experience? Leave a comment here, tweet me on @markhillary, or please join me on Thursday October 22nd at noon (London time) for an Engage Customer webinar focused on this subject.

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